Category Archives: Indonesia

Indonesia Budget & Other Numbers

My wallet was looking forward to getting to Asia, as everyone had told me it was even cheaper than Latin America. And, I didn’t do too badly – food & drink were the cheapest since Bolivia, and accommodation was the cheapest yet. Or rather I should say, I didn’t do too badly as long as I stayed on the ground. Because my (inevitable) overspend was down to two things: one was flying between islands, and the other was the nine dives I did. One was pretty essential (ferry timetables aren’t always that helpful) and the other I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

The other big expense was that I treated myself to a brand new pair of (real, not fake) boardshorts to replaces the ones I bought in Miami and which are already a bit frayed from daily wear. They were particularly nice, if I do say myself. So nice in fact, that after just three hours of wear I hung them out to dry, from where they were promptly nicked while I popped out for a drink. At over $20 an hour of use, it was one more big expense I could have done without.

It’s looking more and more likely now that I’m going to overshoot on budget for the year – although it’s still only marginally. Here’s how the daily averages looked:
Transport: $10.66
Accommodation: $5.56
Activities: $14.88
Misc & purchases: $5.39
Food & drink: $18.44
Total: $54.94

In the seven months of travelling before Indonesia, I’d met a grand total of one Swede. That all change in Indonesia – the place is FULL of them. In fact, the 23 Swedes I met is the biggest concentration of people from one country since the 21 Americans I met in Guatemala. Bizarre. The total is enough to shoot them straight up into joint eighth place in the list of where people I’ve met are from, alongside the Dutch, who were nearly as ubiquitous in the country. The only new country added to this list in Indonesia was Hungary.

Sweden:23
UK: 20
Netherlands: 15
Australians: 14
Indonesia: 13
Germany: 8
USA: 8
Canada: 5
Finland: 4
France: 4
Switzerland: 4
Belgium: 3
Spain: 3
Saudi Arabia: 1
Brazil: 1
Hungary: 1
Portugal: 1
Austria: 1
Mexico: 1

And finally onto those other numbers. Being in the world’s largest archipelago was enough to see my island total shoot up. There’s also a new entry on the modes of transport front – after only being on a moped once in my entire life, they became quite a regular feature in Indonesia.
Beds: 21 (including one on a boat and one in a tent)
Cash withdrawals: 16
Phone calls: 10
Postcards: 2
Laundry: 5
Islands: 16
Dives: 11
Beaches: 8
Volcanoes: 3
Museums: 1
Buses: 16
Taxis: 14
Boats: 14
Mopeds: 15
Flights: 3
Kayaks: 1
Jeeps: 1
Cars: 2
Tuk Tuks / Bejaks: 4

Two Months in Indonesia – a Round-up

I planned my round the world trip around spending at least 6 weeks in certain countries rather than trying to rush around and do too much. Out of all the countries in South East Asia, Indonesia was the obvious choice to spend that amount of time in.

But apparently it was just the obvious choice for me. Out of all the places I’ve been so far on my trip, Indonesia was by far the least touristy (apart from one bit that I’ll come onto in a minute). And I find it completely baffling.

Batak Houses on Pulau Samosir, Sumatra

Indonesia is the biggest country in South East Asia, and has the fourth biggest population in the world. It has more volcanoes than any other country in the world, many of which are safe to climb. It’s home to the biggest lizard in the world, it’s one of only two places to see Orang Utans in the wild, and the forests of Sumatra also have the world’s largest flower. It has the best diving and surfing in Asia, and countless perfect beaches. Java has the world’s biggest (and possibly finest) Buddhist temple, as well as many beautiful Hindu shrines. The people are friendly, the food is good, and everything is pretty cheap. And yet most of the country is almost empty of tourists, other than Bali, Lombok & the Gili Islands. It’s as weird as if 95% of the foreign tourists coming to Europe skipped everything apart from Mallorca and Ibiza.

I’m guessing that people are put off by a combination of the natural disasters that have hit, lingering fears over terrorism (although that doesn’t stop them going to Bali) or maybe even the fact that with a country so big, it seems pointless when you only get a rather stingy thirty day visa on arrival.

Lombok Sunset

Still, it’s their loss, because I absolutely loved the country, in fact I ended up spending even longer than planned, with my eventual time there being nearly two months. There really were so many highlights, but I’d have to say that two stand out for me. First is the fact that Indonesia has the best sunsets I have ever seen. I’d never been a big connoisseur of sunsets before this trip, but some of the ones I saw in the Andes converted me. And they were nothing compared to the stunning shows the setting sun put on night after night.

Orang Utans in Sumatra

Best of all though for me was the wildlife. I’ve never been all that obsessed with plants and animals – historic cities, great beaches, and beautiful scenery normally impress me more – but Indonesia changed all that. I was utterly gobsmacked by what I’ve seen the last two months, including Komodo Dragons, Orang Utans, Manta Rays, huge Turtles and dozens of Reef Sharks, as well as various species of cheekly little monkeys. It’s given me a new-found appreciation of nature and it’s made me rethink some of my future travel plans to do more of that sort of travel in future.

It’s been a bit of a constant theme of these country round-ups that the locals are very friendly, but I have to say that I think the Indonesians have been the best yet. On several occasions I found myself wandering down the street only to find a local strike up a conversation – now this kind of behaviour instantly gets my traveller guard up in case they’re trying to sell me something, but more often than not they just start chatting because they want to talk to you and are interested in where you come from and what you think of their country. My only regret is that I didn’t make more of an effort to learn more Bahasa Indonesia (especially as it’s probably the easiest language to learn in Asia, with its simple grammar and lack of tones), as it really would have enriched the experience even more.

I just wish I’d had even more time there – Sumatra and Flores in particular were beautiful, and I only had a few days in each, due to having to rush before my visas expired, and I’d love to return to see more of them. I had planned to go to Sumba too, but Christmas got in the way, and so I never got to see one of the best-preserved traditional cultures in the country. And I didn’t even get to touch the northern chain of islands – Borneo, Sulawesi, Malaku & Papua – all of which sound fascinating and which I definitely want to return to some day.

So if you’re reading this and planning a trip to Bali – please think about seeing a bit more of the country. Bali is nice enough, but there’s really not much you can see or do there that you can’t see even better, even more cheaply, and without the crowds elsewhere in the country. Plus there’s so much more besides that you could never get to see in Bali alone.

Next stop is the Philippines, which I’m pleased to hear is also pretty uncrowded compared to the rest of South East Asia. I fear that Thailand & Cambodia, my probable final stops, will come as a bit of a shock to the system after this.

You can see all of my Indonesian photos here, and you can read all my Indonesian blog posts here

I wanna hold your (furry) hand

Lake Toba was a pretty lovely place to spend a couple of days chilling out, but I was really only in Sumatra for one reason: Orang Utans.

A couple of hours north of sprawling (and not particularly exciting) Medan is the tiny little village of Bukit Lawang. It’s a charming little place, but it’s not the village everyone comes to see. Sumatra is one of only two places in the world (the other being Borneo) where Orang Utans still live in the wild. Just outside the village is a national park that protects both the rainforest and the animals that live there; on the edge of it is an Orang Utan rehabilitation centre that has been so succesful that the park can take no more of the animals, with the result that a second centre has been opened up elsewhere.

With that many Orang Utans living so close to the village, it’s no surprise that a steady stream of tourists head to Bukit Lawang to trek into the jungle to see them up close (although with this being Indonesia, that stream of tourists is more like a trickle compared to the flood that would visit if it were in most other South East Asian countries).

First monkey of the day

So at eight thirty in the morning, I met up with our guide, Alex, and the group of seven others I’d be trekking with – unusually for Indonesia, they were all English. It took us just a few minutes from the hotel to make it into the jungle, and in no time at all we came across our first close contact with some apes – a troop of Thomas Leaf Monkeys. They weren’t shy at all, and the adult male of the group came down from the trees to have a good look at us (and pose for photos), whilst the kids crashed around the trees above, chasing each other round, swinging from vine to vine and performing rather impressive leaps from tree to tree. Being a young monkey looks like a lot of fun.

It was a nice way to start the day, but we all knew we were there for one reason only, and so we soon moved on to try and find some Orang-Utans. Soon we came across another group standing at the bottom of a tree in silence staring straight up – and we quickly realised what the spectacle was. Perched right at the top of a tree was an adult female Orang Utan in her nest, while her child swung around the tree-tops above her. Exciting as it was to see one, she was so high up, with the sun directly behind her, that it was pretty hard to get a good view.

Getting close to Mina

The day continued in a similar vein, with regular glimpses high up in trees, often obscured by branches, and moving away as soon as we approached. Trying to spot wild animals is always going to be tricky, but it was pretty frustrating all the same. Our luck was about to turn though: as we sat down to have lunch, another group came running past us, as they were trying to get away from the notorious Mina. We’d heard all about her – before she was in the rehabilitation centre, she had lived with humans and had no fear of them. In fact, we had more to fear from her, as she knows humans normally carry food, and she can be quite aggressive in her pursuit of it. So we quickly finished our meals and headed in the direction she was supposed to be, and soon found her. She made a beeline for our guide, who managed to placate her by feeding her bananas one at a time, but as soon as they ran out she started heading straight for us, forcing us to make a quick exit down a steep hill to escape. While they may be shorter in height than humans, they are heavier, and much, much stronger, so it’s really not a good idea to get on the wrong side of one.

With all the excitement over, we headed back down the hill, down some waterfalls, to our camp by the river, with all of us on a real high from getting to see an Orang Utan so close up. We had no idea the best was yet to come.

Jackie

Soon after we made camp, we were all sitting around drinking tea, when Alex pointed out that another semi-wild female, Jackie, was heading down the waterfall and in our direction. She soon made it over to us, and perched on a short little tree just a metre away from where we were sitting, with her adorable little baby (with a cool little Mohican) hanging off her side.

She sat there for a good half hour checking us out, before coming down from the tree and holding the hands of the two nearest people from our group, Helen & Sheri. I really hadn’t expected to get quite so close to an Orang-Utan, and for the next twenty minutes or so, she sat in the middle of us, at one point even giving Sheri a great big hug (which sounds great, but with her huge size and vicelike grip I think Sheri was quite glad to be released again).

Making her way down from the trees

Hugging Sheri

Getting close

It soon became clear that Jackie is quite a bit smarter than Mina – rather than using aggression to get her way, Jackie lulled us into a false sense of security with her affection, and once our guard was down she made a beeline towards the kitchen tent. The guides managed to stop her just in time, and I ended up holding her hand and walking her back across the rover and away from the camp while one of the guides tempted her with some bananas.

Getting ready to walk her away from the camp

She knew she was on to a good thing with us, because as we woke up the next morning she was back in the tree above camp, and soon came down again to get close to us. This time chaos ensued. A troupe of long-tailed macaques had decided to take advantage of our distraction by sneaking round the kitchen tent from the back to try and get at the food, and as soon as we realised what they were up to we stopped watching Jackie for a second and she was off – straight into another tent where she had clearly sniffed out our fruit supplies. In no time at all she’d nabbed all our bananas, oranges and lychees (as well as Helen’s breakfast) and was back up in a tree just out of our reach munching away at her prize.

A Macaque takes advantage of the chaos to steal some toast

We were all pretty speechless. I’d come along on the trek hoping to see the Orang Utans, but I had no idea I’d be able to get so close to one as to be able to hold her hand. They are such beautiful creatures, so human-looking in some of their actions and facial expressions, and clearly very intelligent too. Bukit Lawang had never been on my original itinerary, but I am so glad I made it now. It was my last day in Indonesia after two months, and what a way to go out, as it’s without a doubt one of the best memories of the entire trip to date for me.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here

Cheeky Monkeys & Startled Ladies

After the unavoidable stop in Kuta for Christmas, we had time to escape the madness and explore a bit more of Bali before heading to the Gilis for New Year, and the real must-see was Ubud.

Ubud is one of the many places that I’ve visited on this trip that apparently ‘isn’t what it used to be’ since it was ‘discovered’ and ‘overrun’ by tourists. Funnily enough places that are rather snottily described like that often turn out to be the most fun, and Ubud was no exception.

A rather thorough flea inspection

The town’s main claim to fame is being the centre of traditional Balinese culture (although by day that seems to manifest itself by shop after shop crammed with the same tourist tat, plus an added sprinkling of expat ‘artists’ churning out staggeringly bland and identikit paintings of rice paddies and Balinese temples) but for our first stop we were more interested in some of the other local inhabitants, the rather cheeky little monkeys of the town’s Monkey Forest Sanctuary. It’s just outside the centre of town, and the place is full of Macaques walking straight up to you in the hope of finding food. Despite the fact it’s all pretty touristy, it was great fun. The monkeys are pretty adorable (especially the babies) and when they’re not feeding they seem to spend most of the time sitting around in pairs checking each other for fleas (or, in the case of some of the male ones, engaging in a certain more solitary activity).

If the monkeys were a nice little distraction for an afternoon, the real highlight of our stay in Ubud was getting to see some traditional Balinese dancing. One evening we made our way up to Ubud Palace to watch a performance, and it was really quite incredible. It takes years to train to be a professional dancer, and you can clearly see why. The elegance of the different poses they strike is quite beautiful, and the various traditional forms that they gracefully and seemingly effortlessly hold themselves in – particularly the way the hands are constantly folded right back, far further than any normal person can manage – is amazing.

There’s just one aspect of it all that I find a little bizarre – it’s the way the female dancers spend most of the time with their eyes as wide open as they can, with eyebrows raised, that makes it look like they spend most of their time looking rather startled.

Christmas & New Year in Indonesia

If there’s one tip I could give wannabe round the world travellers that I failed to pick up on during my fifteen months of planning, it would be to think carefully about where you want to spend the Christmas and New Year period. I met countless travellers heading to Sydney who hadn’t planned ahead and were shocked to find hostels charging trip the normal rate. For a while I thought I was going to get stuck in East Timor – all the flights to Singapore and Bali were full, flights to Darwin were stupidly expensive, and all the buses out to West Timor were booked up too. Luckily I found out at the last minute that I was able to get a more indirect bus, and so I made it out just in time to get to Bali on the evening of the 23rd of December.

It wasn’t just the transport that I should have planned ahead with – I had fun enough on my last visit to Kuta back in November, but of all the places I might have chosen to spend Christmas day, it was far from the top of my list. Luckily though, I was meeting my friends Simon & Katie from back home, so at least I had good company and was able to spend the day on the beach trying my hand at surfing.

It was a pretty brief experience: I was utterly useless. I’d occasionally catch a wave and manage to get about one foot on the board before toppling off again, getting a mouthful of sea water and then struggling for the next twenty minutes to get back out to the waves again, only for each attempt to end the same way. After a couple of hours I soon realised I was never going to make it as a surfer and gave up to chill out on the beach.

If Christmas was a little disappointing, we had higher hopes for New Year. I’d loved the Gili Islands on my first visit, so we headed back there. Nice as Gili Trawangan was, I’d heard it would be pretty crowded, expensive, and difficult to get a room, so instead we decided on Gili Air as I’d heard there was going to be a party on the beach there for the once in a generation New Year’s Eve full moon party. Now, a little note to the Observer: the Gili Islands are not ‘the new Ibiza’, as a spectacularly idiotic article claimed last month. The comparison is laughable – each Gili Island is about the size of a single nightclub in Ibiza (and it’s worth noting that the islands don’t even have any nightclubs). About all the two places have in common is that they have a beach and a few hippies. It never ceases to amaze me, the drivel that British travel supplements churn out week after week.

Anyway, we arrived on Gili Air and instantly worried that we have made a bit of a mistake – despite most of the hotels being full (or out of our price range), it still felt as quiet as it had done on my last visit. The tranquility of the place is part of the appeal, but we were at least hoping for a little bit of action for the big night.

A final Gili Islands sunset

A final Gili Islands sunset

The place to be, apparently, was the Space bar, hidden away in the even quieter North Western corner of the island, so we hopefully trudged our way round the sandy coastal path with no idea what to expect. The bars we passed proceeded to get quieter and quieter…until eventually we began to hear the muffled thud of dance music somewhere in the distance. We finally arrived and were rather amazed by what we found – a full on rave on the beach, with lasers and projections and all kinds of glowing things hanging from the trees, and with a mixed group of about three hundred locals, hippies and backpackers dancing away on the sand.

NYE Fireworks

Ooo! Aah! etc..

It was hardly Ko Pha Ngan but I reckon all the better for it. It was bust enough to feel like a real party, but still quiet enough that there were plenty of quieter places along the beach to chill out on when we fancied chilling out from dancing to the rather banging psychedelic trance music. As we spent the night drifting between dancing amongst the palm trees, watching people dancing with fire poi, and the beach, it was one of the best new year’s parties I’d ever been to.

Raving on the beach

Raving on the beach

The next morning (well, afternoon actually, by the time we finally emerged from bed), the island has returned to its normal, sedate self. The only mystery was where on earth all those other people at the party had come – we didn’t see most of them around the island the rest of the time we were there.

Getting an Indonesian visa in East Timor

Last time I checked, the Lonely Planet’s info on getting an Indonesian visa in East Timor was slightly out-of-date, and missing a little information, so I figured having just been through the experience it might be useful to explain the process to anyone wanting to do the same. Regular readers, move along swiftly, there’s nothing to see here. Normal posting will resume shortly.

Whether like me you’ve fallen foul of the fact Indonesia only gives a 30 day visa on arrival (which really isn’t long enough for a country that big), or whether your 60 day visa has expired, or if you’re flying into Dili from Darwin or Singapore, it’s pretty straightforward to get an Indonesian visa at their embassy in the East Timorese capital. And the good news is it seems to be pretty easy to get a 60 day one too.

Here’s how it all works:

Be Prepared

Before you head down to the embassy, you’ll need a passport photo taken with a RED background (no, I don’t know why either), a photocopy of your passport, and a letter explaining how long you want the visa for (30 or 60 days) and a rough outline of what you plan to do. Apparently this can be handwritten, but it’s probably safer to type one up. All of these can easily be sorted in Dili if you don’t have them before you arrive in the country.

Get up early

The embassy may open its doors at 8.30am, but that doesn’t mean that’s when you should turn up. They only process about fifty a day, and considering there’s lots of East Timorese people applying as well, this means you should really get into the queue at the front gate at around 6am (which is what I did, and I was 14th in the queue).

Fill in your forms

While you wait for the doors to open, a security guard will pass you the forms through the gate, which you need to fill in with a BLACK pen (again, don’t know why, but make sure you do or you’ll just have to fill it in again). You also need to glue your photo to the form. The guards have glue.

Wait patiently
…until the doors open at 8.30am. You’ll be let in one at a time to see a person who checks you have everything you need, and that you’ve filled in your form. He then gives you a number and then you get back in the a queue, this time inside, and wait for the person behind the counter to call your number. The person behind the counter checks all your forms, takes your $45 (for 30 or 60 days), and your passport, and gives you a receipt and tells you to come back in three working days later (not the five that the Lonely Planet suggests; however double check on this locally as it may change again). Watch out for East Timorese and Indonesian public holidays (there are quite a few of both) as the embassy closes for both sets.

Go and explore East Timor

There’s lots to see.

Return after three days

…and hopefully it’ll be ready. The office is open for collections at 3pm.
Bear in mind if you’ve already had an Indonesian visa and you’re running low on pages, they won’t stick the new one over the old one, but will use another whole page for it. Lovely.

The multicoloured lakes of Kelimutu

Taxis don’t really exist in this part of Indonesia, which is how I found myself tearing up the side of a mountain on the back of a motorbike at 4am in pitch blackness, without a helmet, pointlessly racing three other motorbikes carrying similarly terrified foreigners round tight bends, and regularly having to slam on the brakes because a cow has wandered into the road. You may be wondering why on earth I was putting myself in such a situation in the first place.

The answer is that we were heading up to see the sun rise over the top of Kelimutu, one of Indonesia’s most awesome sights. The country has many active volcanoes, but this one’s claim to fame is that the craters hold three beautiful multi-coloured lakes. Not only that, but they actually change colour regularly depending on which minerals the volcano underneath chooses to spew up that week. Over the past twenty years they’ve managed to take on pretty much every colour in the rainbow, as well as black, white and chocolate-brown. Information on what colours to expect was pretty limited before we headed up, so we had no idea what to expect.

This being a relatively untouristed part of the country, and so it was no surprise that when we dropped off, slightly shaken but glad to be alive, there was a complete lack of signposting to tell us how to get to the lakes. It was of course still dark, but thanks to a bit of guesswork and a lot of luck, we made it up the last part of the hill to the viewing point above the three lakes. One turned out to be nearly jet-black, the second was turquoise, and the third a milky blue colour.

After eight months of travelling I’ve noticed it gets easier and easier to be dismissive of things – and in this case I have to say I was slightly disappointed by the colours the volcano had decided to choose this month (after all, you can barely swing a cat in the Andes without it plopping into a turquoise lake) – I was at least hoping for a red one. Is that really too much to ask.

Kelimutu sunrise

But still, colours aside, the setting was absolutely fantastic, as the sky began to light up as the sun began to creep over the lip of the volcano opposite, while in the distance all around sat jagged, misty mountains, framing the scene perfectly.

Even better was the fact we only had to share the view with ten others – eight of whom promptly left as soon as the sun was up (I have no idea why – unless you have your own transport, if you watch the sun rise over Kelimutu, it’s too late to catch a bus out, and there’s not a lot else to do but relax in the nearby town of Moni, where everyone stays). This meant that by the time the real show began, there wer just four of us to see it.

Turquoise lake, blue lake


For while the sunrise is impressive, the lakes don’t really show off their magic properly until the sun has risen higher in the sky. Being in no hurry, we sat around for a while chatting, before strolling over to a viewpoint between the two main lakes, where we were treated to quite a spectacular sight. Any disappointment I’d felt about the colours earlier instantly vanished as we saw that the main lake wasn’t just turquoise, it was a rich, vibrant turquoise, so thick and opaque it looked like someone had tipped a huge vat of paint into the crater. Not only that, bubbles of sulphur were continually rising up from underneath, leaving a bright yellow scum floating across the surface. Almost as good was the milky blue lake next door, which had a similarly paintlike appearance.

Mmm


unsurprisingly enough, we spurned the offer of a moped ride back down, and after a traditional Indonesian breakfast of Pop Mie instant noodles and a can of Pocari Sweat (a Japanese energy drink, for those unfamiliar with its delights) we set off down the hill for the 13.5km walk back to Moni.

It turned out to be beautiful. Leaving the road behind, we headed onto a narrow track that cut down steeply through the forest, before opening out into the fields that cover the fertile slopes of the volcano, growing bananas and corn. Every now and then we’d pass a house (normally to be greeted with cries of “Hello Mister!” from any kids in the household) and get directions, which mostly consisted of me saying ‘Moni?’ hopefully and the locals pointing the way. On the way, we got to see women weaving ikat (traditional patterns from this part of Indonesia), and the path all the way down was spattered with the red splotches where betel-nut chewing locals had spat. It was a great way to see traditional village life, and made us very glad we’d chosen to walk.

Making ikat

Everything was fine until the houses ran out, we reached a turning, and had to guess which way to go. Inevitably, we took the wrong one, and as the daytime heat began to reach furnace-like levels and the humidity that of a sauna, we found ourselves heading further away from Moni (which had been in sight before), gradually slowing as our sweat levels rose, our water began to run out, and our feet to tire. By the time we eventually made it back, we reckon we must have managed at least another 7km, and we were soaked, dehydrated, and knackered. But, our guesthouse owner had tea, water and banana pancakes ready for us almost as soon as we’d plonked ourselves back onto our terrace, and all was good again. Not a bad travelling day in all – three stunning lakes, a hard but rewarding walk, and all done by 11am leaving us plenty of time to adjust back to village time and do nothing for the rest of the day.

And with that, thanks to a marathon posting session here in Maumere, Flores, I’m finally up to date with my posting (I climbed Kelimutu yesterday – although there’s a slight delay in these posts appearing while I catch up) for the first time since about Mexico. I’m going to try my best to keep it that way, as I think fresher posting means fresher writing.

Unfortunately the way I’ve been able to achieve this is by uploading far fewer photos to Flickr, and at a far lower resolution, meaning I no longer have a proper backup (internet speeds are generally way slower than south america, which wasn’t eaxctly rocket speed). Let’s hope I can survive another four months without breaking or losing my laptop then.

The most beautiful creature in the ocean

As if having Komodo dragons wasn’t enough of an attraction, the Komodo-Rinca National Park also turns out to be one of the best diving spots in the world. All those powerful currents in the relatively narrow Komodo Strait mix warmer and colder water from the Flores Sea to the north and the Sunda Sea & Indian Ocean to the south, and that produces a huge diversity in marine life.

With my advanced diving certificate newly under my belt, I was dead keen to brave the currents and see how much I’d improved, so along with Victor and two of the others from the Komodo cruise, we popped into one of the dive shops in Labuanbajo (the main western port in Flores, and jumping off point for all boats into the National Park) and asked about diving the next day.

“Do you want to see big stuff or small stuff?” was the first thing he asked, and we all knew exactly what we wanted to see: big stuff, and in particular Manta Rays, which we’d heard were frequently seen around Komodo. So he promised to try his best to find us some big stuff, so the next morning we woke up for the last time on our boat, started saying our goodbyes to all our new friends, and prepared to head off to meet up with our dive boat.

Except there was one small problem we hadn’t factored in: the tide had gone out and the boat was too low down for us to reach the dock. After a few minutes trying to come up with an alternative, it soon became clear there was only one – we had to hop into the boat’s tiny canoe and be paddled out to the shore by one of the boat’s crew. Now these things aren’t the most stable at the best of times, but add in two huge backpacks and we were terrified we’d capsize, with all our luggage before we even reached land. Turned out that was the least of our worries – as the only place we could land was on a mudflat. So we had to get out of the canoe, put our backpacks on, and struggle across thick, calf-deep, slimy mud without falling. That was followed up by a scramble up the very sharp rocks that made up the edge of the harbour.

With that little mission out-of-the-way, we were soon on the dive boat and heading out into the Komodo Strait. The dive master had decided to save the Mantas til last, but he promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed by the sights on offer at the first dive site, and he wasn’t wrong. Within seconds of getting into the water we’d already come face to face with a black-tipped reef shark, and that set the scene for the rest of the dive – we saw loads of them prowling around along the coral wall. I’d only managed to see one previously in Honduras, and none on the Gili Islands, so seeing that many at once was incredible. If that wasn’t enough, we saw three big hawksbill turtles too. I’d seen turtles before, but only ever on the edge of the reef; this was the first time I’d seen them swimming freely in open water, and I was amazed to see how graceful they are compared to their awkwardness on land.

Amazing sights apart, the dive was a bit of a shock to the system for all of us – none of us were all that experienced and the currents were way stronger than anything we’d experienced before, which made the diving harder work, plus with their unpredictable nature we all found it much harder to control our buoyancy and keep a constant level. We could see properly why when we got back to the surface to wait for the other group – the dive site was around a little islet, and as the currents hit it, they swirled all around it creating ferocious torrents and whirlpools. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Dive number two took us to a site called Manta Point – named for obvious reasons – although he was keen to remind us that nothing could be guaranteed on a dive. After seeing some in the water from the boat while we suited up, we laughed this off – but soon realised he’d been right to damp down our expectations, as the dive was incredibly frustrating.

The dive site itself was easily the dullest I’ve been to, with very little live coral, and not many fish either. Furthermore, the current was even stronger than the previous one, so there wasn’t much to see and even that was hard work. From time to time we’d catch a glimpse of a ray in the distance, but nothing like I’d hoped for. With the time ticking on, and air running gradually lower, I was starting to resign myself to missing out.

Manta Ray - by Jon Hanson @ Flickr

And then, right towards the end, we suddenly came across a group of four not far away. We all swam over to a nearby rock, clung on for dear life (the current would have swept us in the opposite direction otherwise) and sat and watched, just a couple of metres away. It was worth all the wait, for they are truly stunning creatures. The biggest was huge – about 4m across – and they are so incredibly graceful. They were hovering on the spot in the current, gently flapping their wings up and down to keep them steady, while at the same time groups of tiny, colourful fish danced away right underneath them. We just sat and watched until it was time to head up for our safety stop. We only spent maybe ten to fifteen minutes of the dive with them, but it was a moment I’ll never forget. The Komodo Dragons may get all the fame (for obvious reasons), but for me my fondest memory of the national park will be those ten minutes I spent with the Manta Rays, they really are the most beautiful and graceful animals I have ever seen.

Here be dragons

As the boat approached Komodo, we were all busy trying to convince ourselves that it really didn’t matter if we didn’t see any dragons, you know, as the snorkelling had been so good and my what beautiful sunsets and weren’t the flying foxes amazing and how it’s all about the journey rather than the arrival and other such nonsense – but of course getting to see Komodo dragons had been the whole point of the exercise for all of us and we all knew deep down we’d be gutted if we didn’t get to see at least one.Keep silent

For those who don’t know, Komodo Dragons are the world’s biggest lizards – monitor lizards to be precise – and they are pretty deadly too, as just one bite from an adult is enough to kill a human through blood poisoning within just a few days. It was not exactly comforting to be told on arriving that they had no stock of the required antibiotics on the island, and that any bite would require evacuation to Bali, which is not exactly close. The sense of unease was heightened further as we set out on the path to be told about the Swiss tourist who had died after being bitten when he was separated from his group (although to be honest it was his own fault for lingering behind to get more photos), and about the park ranger who was recently bitten by a young dragon – although luckily thanks to its young age, he survived and was back at work within a few months.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long before catching our first glimpse. We soon reached the first waterhole, to find a single dragon stalking a group of deer. As soon as he caught sight of us (we were quite a big group, after all) he ran off deeper into the bush. Even with that brief glimpse, he was quite a menacing sight. Nearly three metres long from nose to tail, they really are massive beasts. Their big, wide bodies are propped up on short, powerful legs, and when they walk the whole body and tail move from side to side, like a giant snake on legs.

Hiding in a bush

Hiding in a bush

The ranger soon managed to track him down to his hiding place under a bush, giving us the opportunity to get closer. The whole time we took photos we could see him staring intently at us, and the moment we stopped paying attention to him to listen to the ranger talk, he took advantage of our distraction and fled at high-speed once more.

The rest of the walk round Komodo was a bit of a disappointment in dragon-spotting terms, but we weren’t too worried, as our next stop would be the nearby island of Rinca, which is much smaller than Komodo but with a similar dragon population – which in theory should make seeing them much easier. Luckily that theory turned out to be true, as within seconds of getting off the boat we came across a young dragon slinking his way along the path in front of us. From then on we saw loads along the way, mostly adult females basking in the sun. Even though we knew they’d probably be wary of a group our size, having seen them on the move we approached each one with great respect, stepping slowly around them keeping our eyes on them the whole time, as none of us really fancied being taken by surprise.

Not sure I'd want to stay in this guest house

The final group of dragons we saw were some big, lazy ones sleeping under the rangers’ kitchen hut (eating scraps is far easier than hunting buffalo after all), and seeing a big group of them together was rather scary – especially when one of them showed the pointlessness of building huts on stilts by climbing up the stairs and into the office, soon to be chased straight back out by a group of stick-wealding rangers.

Adult female by the rangers' hut

With its wild, hilly, unspoilt landscape filled with primeval looking plants and dragons, Rinca does a pretty passable impression of Jurassic Park – but all the more impressive for the fact that this one is real.

Rinca landscape

Sailing off in search of dragons

I was faced with three options when it came to getting to Komodo. Would it be the expensive flight on a dodgy Indonesian airline? Or maybe the uncomfortable 31 hour bus-boat-bus-boat overland option? Or perhaps the four-day all-inclusive boat trip island-hopping all the way from Lombok to Flores, taking in Komodo along the way?

The boat's route

It was a pretty tough choice as you can imagine, but in the end the boat won out and early on a saturday afternoon we set off from Lombok. We’d been promised many delights along the way, and the first of which turned up just a few hours in. We were all stood on the deck watching yet another gorgeous Indonesian sunset, and just as the sun went down, the sky began to fill with a huge flock of birds rising up from the mangrove trees on a small offshore island and heading back to the mainland to sleep. Except as we got closer, we soon realised they weren’t birds at all, but thousands of huge flying foxes. I’ve only ever seen tiny bats before, and these ones were a whole different kettle of fish. It was quite a sight watching them silhouetted against the red sky, and the spectacle continued for a good five or so minutes, as more and more made their way out of the trees and joined the migration.

The beginning of the nightly Flying Fox migration

Dinner (Nasi Goreng, of course) gave us an opportunity to get to know each other better, and I was once again lucky to be with a great little group. Alongside myself and Victor, the Swede I’d spent the week with in the Gili Islands, there were three more Swedes (you’re never very far from one in Indonesia), two Belgians, two Swiss, and one each from Germany, Holland & Quebec. It’s probably a good thing we all got on so well, as of course it being a budget boat (there are a few other options, but a bit too pricey for most backpackers) it turned out to be a big floating dorm, as the upper deck was completely filled with twelve mattresses with no gaps in between.

Tight squeeze on deck

It’s funny the things that travel agents miss out when they’re describing a tour to you – like the fact that the boat would be travelling all night on the first two nights. And of course the boat’s engine was the loudest imaginable, and was conveniently located right underneath the dorm. If the waves weren’t enough to keep us sleeping lightly, we all soon realised the engine would be. Predictably enough day two began by most of us being up and about on the lower deck soon after sunrise, everyone looking rather frazzled.

Perfectly calm sea near Sumbawa

Still, everyone was in good spirits, for as soon after breakfast we sailed up to a thickly forested, national park island, with its beautiful, white sandy beach, and inviting turquoise water. This was to be our first snorkelling stop, and it turned out to be fantastic. The coral here was far healthier than in the part of the Gilis I’d done it in, and the variety of corals and fish was huge. Best of all, I got to see my first ever sea snake, a huge black and white one slithering through the water looking remarkably similar to the way they move on land. That was followed by a quick trek through the jungle to a big waterfall with a huge pool for swimming in (and giant vines hanging over it that allowed all the boys to practice our best Tarzan impersonations as we swung into the water).

One of the things I’ve really began to appreciate on this trip is the miraculous healing power of salt water. No matter how tired (or indeed hung over) I am, all it takes is a quick dip in the sea and I feel completely restored. Getting back on the boat everyone had woken up, and we soon settled into a wonderful routine of sailing from island to island, occasionally hopping out for a quick snorkel or to laze on yet another perfect beach. It amazes me the effort people make to find the ideal, undiscovered beach in Thailand, when there are literally thousands in Indonesia, many of them on completely uninhabited islands – although other than doing a trip like the one we were on, getting there might be a bit of an issue.

Our own private beach

We realised we were nearing our destination when the boat hit the hugely powerful currents of the Komodo Strait – so powerful that you could see them on the surface of the water like rivers running through the sea, creating huge whirlpools whenever they hit an islet or some submerged rock. At one point we crossed into one and the whole boat lurched as if it had been hit by an object. Nature can be quite a powerful beast sometimes – something we were hoping to see in action again as we sailed into Komodo harbour. The big question was…after all the effort to get there, would we actually get to see any dragons?